Md. Prisons, Wireless Industry at Odds Over Jamming Inmate Cellphones
Friday, July 3, 2009
In the war for wireless supremacy, there is Verizon vs. AT&T, the iPhone vs. the BlackBerry. -- And then there's Gary D. Maynard vs. the 23,000 residents of Maryland's state prisons. -- In his bid to snuff out mobile phones in Maryland's two dozen state lockups, Maynard, the state's public safety secretary, is willing to try just about anything.
Already he has a roving team of three cell-sniffing dogs and an expanding supply of body orifice security scanners, or BOSS chairs, which are supposed to detect even the most delicately hidden cellphones.
Still the number of phones seized is climbing, so Maynard is looking to add more tools to his anti-cellular arsenal. Perhaps his most controversial effort is his push for the power to jam cellphone signals in prisons.
"Inmates are thinking all the time about how they can beat the system, or beat us, or make money, and I think we have to use every opportunity to throw them off guard and catch them when they're not looking," Maynard said in an interview at the state's prison complex in Jessup.
Unlike land lines, an unidentified cellphone can't be readily monitored, and so inmates can -- and do -- use them to coordinate smuggling, intimidate witnesses and even order hits, officials said. And coveted as they are by inmates, cellphones provide yet another temptation for state corrections employees, dozens of whom have been fired in recent years for smuggling contraband and fraternizing with inmates.
Jamming is one of many ideas Maynard said he and his staff are considering to combat the use of cellphones in Maryland prisons, where 947 phones were seized in 2008 and 336 were confiscated in the first four months of this year. In contrast, the Virginia Department of Corrections seized 66 in 2008 and 21 more through June 25.
But jamming cellphone signals, except when carried out by some federal agencies, is illegal in the United States. The wireless industry has resisted calls to revisit that prohibition, saying jamming is inexact and could interfere with service to legitimate users.
A bill introduced by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) and backed by Maynard would allow local and state governments to seek jamming authority from the Federal Communications Commission on a prison-by-prison basis. The bill, the Safe Prisons Communications Act of 2009, has the support of Maryland's senior U.S. senator, Barbara A. Mikulski (D), and a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee is likely this month.
Maryland wants to be ready if the bill passes. Last month, Mikulski and Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) asked federal authorities for permission to conduct a jamming test at a prison in Baltimore.
The D.C. Department of Corrections sought similar permission last year, said Director Devon Brown, and initially obtained FCC approval. But testing was put on hold after concerns were raised first by other city officials and then by the FCC, Brown said.
South Carolina, which conducted a test in November without federal approval, is asking the FCC for permission to use jamming equipment, a spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Corrections said.
The industry does not deny that cellphones in prisons are a serious problem, said Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association. But jamming equipment is not precise enough to jam all calls in a prison without jamming some calls outside the prison, Guttman-McCabe said. "You're going to have to over-jam," he said.
Anthony Ephremides, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Maryland and an expert in mobile communications, said that a precision system is possible but that it comes at a higher cost. Even then, he said, it is hard to build a system that can keep pace with technology. "It's doable, but it's not a panacea," Ephremides said. "It needs testing and experimentation and caution."
The industry group wants states to abandon the jamming idea altogether. Guttman-McCabe said association engineers are working with Maryland to explore other technologies, such as signal detectors. And the group is urging states to strengthen laws against contraband and step up scrutiny of prison staff.
Jamming may, under certain circumstances, be conducted by some federal agencies, such as the Secret Service, which on Inauguration Day jammed some local cellphone signals using equipment that can counter remote-controlled explosives.
States need similar authority, some law enforcement officials and prison administrators said.
Last year, a Texas death row inmate allegedly made threatening calls to a powerful state senator. The call, one of hundreds found to have been placed from inmates on Texas's death row, helped spur the Senate bill introduced in January by Hutchison, Texas's senior senator.
Closer to home, 24 members and associates of a notorious Maryland prison gang were indicted in April, accused not only of supplying contraband in state prisons but also of distributing drugs on the outside aided by easy access to cellphones inside. In May, a Baltimore drug dealer was sentenced to four life terms for the killing of a witness he arranged by cellphone while locked up awaiting trial on another murder charge.
Dialing up contract killings, officials said, is only the worst of what inmates do with cellphones. Cellphones make it easier to smuggle in heroin, tobacco, liquor and, yes, more phones. Orders can be placed. Drop-offs can be coordinated.
It can be even easier at lower-security prisons such as Brockbridge Correctional Facility, said Maj. Nathan Rollins, the facility's senior corrections officer. Brockbridge, a minimum-security prison in Jessup, sends out hundreds of inmates on work programs each day.
A display was set up for the benefit of a visitor in the prison auditorium: a long table covered with cellphones seized at Brockbridge and other facilities in recent months.
It was a veritable bazaar, including phones made by LG, Nokia and Motorola for use with Verizon Wireless and AT&T. The favorite, though, was a dark blue Kyocera distributed by Virgin Mobile. At least a couple of dozen littered the table, including 20 that were thrown over a fence and intercepted back in May.
"I've been in this business for 35 years," Rollins said, "and this is really a problem."